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The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) has prepared the first technical guideline for the production of Gum Arabic and Resin to ensure the quality and sustainability of the resource by applying scientific knowledge. The guideline is believed to protect the environment against degradation and foster the quality and productivity of the resource. It also aspires to form a cooperative community in a bid to organise the individual production schemes currently employed, Capital learnt.     
The ministry’s new guideline was introduced following the study conducted by the Centre for International Forest Research in 2011, entitled ‘Opportunities and Challenges for Sustainable Production and Marketing of Gums and Resins in Ethiopia’. The study undertaken by the active collaboration of both the governmental and non governmental organizations indicates the opportunities and challenges for sustainable production and marketing of gums and resins in Ethiopia.
“The production of natural gum and resin is traditionally produced in Ethiopia.   Since the development of the resource is located in wild areas, scattered across regions, it needs a plan that ensures sustainability both in terms of quality and quantity. To do that, our ministry has developed technical guidelines at the federal level. We are currently working to dispatch the guidelines down to regional states. That is a work in progress; meanwhile production remains strong,” Sileshi Getahun, State Minister of MoA, explained to Capital.     
Based on different study outcomes, Ethiopia’s dry land vegetation resources are facing a severe threat of degradation from several forces; mainly human-induced. Drivers of dry land degradation include population growth and farmland expansion, lack of regeneration, human-induced fires, improper tapping, overgrazing, bush encroachment and improper use of woodlands.
Several studies have observed that young trees (seedlings and saplings) for most of the gum and resin producing species are consistently absent from their natural environments. For instance, the same studies report that 65 percent of the total population falls into the diameter categories of 13 to 15 cm and 16 to 24 cm, which is alarming, say experts.
Studies reveal that Boswellia trees produce fewer and lower-quality seeds when intensively tapped. This leads to low germination and regeneration rates. For example, germination rates for seeds from intensively tapped trees were 14 percent compared with rates of more than 80 percent for seeds from untapped stands. Similarly, another study shows that untapped trees yield significantly higher numbers of viable seeds than continuously tapped trees.
The same study shows that the effect of tapping is more pronounced in older trees than in younger ones. Tapped stands also produce seeds with a higher incidences of insect attacks and a higher proportion of unfilled seeds than untapped stands. Therefore, tapping, by interfering with tree physiology, results in the production of a high proportion of unfilled seeds and seeds that are vulnerable to opportunistic predators. These seeds fail to produce seedlings, leading to insufficient natural regeneration.
One such study has already been conducted in Amhara Regional State, according to Sileshi.
“Following the development of a national guideline for natural gum and resin, the Amhara Regional State, [one of the seven regional states endowed with the resource] has established a task force to study the state of natural gum and resin in the region in line with the national guideline. That is a good move by itself in our bid to protect the resource and ensure the gains that come out of it,” he explained. 
Overgrazing is another cause of low regeneration. Seedling establishment has been found to be better in enclosed or fenced experimental plots than in openly grazed sites. Boswellia trees, specifically B. papyrifera, are tapped to produce frankincense.
Tapping involves making incisions in (wounding) the tree body. Incisions are made by shaving off the bark of the trees using sharp instruments.
The depth, intensity and frequency of the incisions vary according to the tapper, as no standards, training or monitoring applies to the practice. Careless tapping and repeated intense wounding in an attempt to increase yield are harmful to the trees. Furthermore, deep incisions that affect the inner bole (the sapwood) of the trees can cause the trees to dry up and die. Deeper incisions lead to prolonged healing periods; this is exacerbated because wounding is done during the dry season when poor growth conditions inhibit quick healing.
There are also indications that incisions predispose trees to insect and pathogenic infections. Incisions create a route by which wood borers and other parasites can access and infect the trees. Such infections coupled with the trees’ weakened resistance due to intense wounding in dry seasons frequently cause the trees to die.
Under best practice, a tree is tapped for no more than three consecutive years, and should be rested so it can recover and regain vigour. However, in most cases, Boswellia trees are repeatedly tapped at intervals of 15 days throughout the dry season for up to seven or more years. This causes premature death and production of poor-quality seeds that are unable to regenerate.
In addition fire can kill most seedlings. Fire intensity and frequency have increased in most dry land areas because of population growth, which means fires bring more damage. According to the recent study of population growth in woodland areas, there has been government-sponsored resettlement programmes and self-initiated migration in search of croplands. This is thought to complicate the problem facing the resource.
As a strategy to enhance food security, successive governments during the past 30 to 40 years have implemented resettlement programmes for vulnerable people, moving them from degraded highlands to dry forest areas. For example, from 2002–2005, about 340,000 households were officially resettled from the three regional states of  Tigray, Amhara and Oromia.
“The guideline foresees a condition in which the current scattered individual production streamlined in an organised production system. This can be done though organising the current producer in to cooperative society. This can ensure both quality and productivity in a sustainable manner since it is very easy to provide training to an organised group than scattered individuals. This will open the door for proper planning, evaluation and control which is lacking at present. This does not mean we forbid individual or private investment in any way,” argued the state minister.  
Between 1998 and 2007, Ethiopia exported about 25, 192 tonnes – an average of approximately 2,519 tonnes per year – of natural gums and resins with a value of 307.25 million birr (34.14 million dollars). According to research, the export volume increased on average by 12 percent each year from 1998 to 2007.
The government stated in its economic policy that it would double the production of the resource. For instance, PASDEP’s in 2005 recognize the subsector’s economic role led to plans to double production for the period 2005 to 2010. However, little documentation on the resource base is available in the country.
Ethiopia has exported on average 2,033 tonnes of gums and resins to the world market each year during the past 15 years. However, the problem with export statistics is the aggregation of all products (frankincense, myrrh, opoponax, balsam, etc.) into a single commodity. This makes it difficult to provide separate statistics for individual gum and resin products.
Lower qualities of the resource labelled as grades four and five originate from Tigray called olibanum and myrrh; and all Borana and Ogaden types called olibanum always end up in the domestic market. A household consumes about 5 to10 grams of incense per day mainly during the coffee ceremony. The average annual consumption for this purpose is thus estimated to be 4,500 tonnes. Similarly, about 6,000 tonnes of incense are consumed annually in connection with religious ceremonies, putting the average annual domestic consumption at 10,500 tonnes.
“The overall concept of the guideline is to increase quality, productivity and sustainability through ensuring environmental protection. That can be done through planning, controlling and evaluating about the resource under consideration scientifically,” the State minister told Capital.  
Fact files
Ethiopian market share
Gum and resin exports contribute about 0.54–0.73 percent of the country’s total export revenue. Of the four export products in this subsector – frankincense, myrrh, gum arabic and opoponax – frankincense, typically that of Tigray type frankincense accounts for 91 percent of the value and 93 percent of the quantity. Despite the huge potential for gum arabic production in Ethiopia, exports of gum arabic remain negligible in the world scale of production. It represents only 0.1 percent of the African share in the global market. If the estimated potential of 4,996 tonnes, even half of it, were produced and exported, Ethiopia could increase its gum arabic exports to 3 to 4 percent of the world total.
In terms of the market for gums and resins other than gum arabic, Ethiopia has 1 percent of the world market and 28 percent of Africa’s export trade. Ethiopia is thus Africa’s leading exporter of natural gums and resins other than Gum Arabic. Although Ethiopia has only 1percent of the global market for gums and resins except Gum Arabic, its share increased in value by 14 percent and 24 percent for the periods from 2001 to 2005 and 2004 to 2005, respectively.
The major destinations are the United Arab Emirates (18.39 percent), Germany (14.43percent), Tunisia (13.45percent), China (9.43 percent) and Greece (5.94 percent). Together, these countries account for 61.64percent of Ethiopia’s total gum and resin exports.
Gum and resin-producing species:
Ethiopia’s diversity of plants that yield commercial gums and resins is one of the highest in the world. About 13 species of Acacia, 16 species of Commiphora and six species of Boswellia are known as potential yielders of commercial gums and resins in Ethiopia. Among these, gums from two species of Acacia and gum resins from 3–4 species of Commiphora and five species of Boswellia are currently produced commercially.
Regional distribution and spatial coverage:
Gum and resin producing species cover substantial areas of Ethiopia. The country also has vast areas that can be considered potentially suitable for cultivating these trees. The country’s arid and semi-arid lands which cover an area of 560, 000 to 615,000sqm is suitable for growing the trees. Although estimates differ, because of the lack of a national-scale forest inventory, naturally growing Acacia, Boswellia and Commiphora species are believed to predominate across an area of 28,550 to 43,350sqm.
In terms of regional distribution, gum and resin producing species are found in the seven regional states of the country. These are Afar, Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambela, Oromia, Somali, Southern Nations and Nationalities and Tigray Regional States.